De Mistura’s Mistakes: What the New UN Special Envoy Should Learn from the Past Four Years

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura during the Munich Security Conference in 2017. Source: Wikimedia

On November 1st, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appointment of Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen to the position of UN Special Envoy for Syria. As the international community prepares for Staffan de Mistura’s departure from the position at the end of November, SJAC highlights six major issues which arose during de Mistura’s tenure and makes recommendations to the new UN Special Envoy on how to move forward without repeating the mistakes of the past.

Reinvigorate the Geneva Process. De Mistura caved to pressure from Russia to initiate and engage with a separate Astana-track process that undermined the Geneva track negotiations. By making this significant concession regarding the process in exchange for smaller, often unfulfilled concessions from regional stakeholders, he allowed Russian influence to go largely unchecked. At the January 2018 talks in Sochi, Russia exercised control over all Syrian delegations, specifically selecting a largely pro-Assad contingent and allowing them to control the behavior of the small opposition contingent. Despite this sham process that resulted in a joint statement that was essentially agreed to before the talks even began, De Mistura legitimized these talks by participating as an observer in the meeting, only refusing to act as chair after heavy pressure from the US and French governments. The new Special Envoy should reject the notion that ceding major control over the negotiations to Russia is worth other concessions; instead, he can refuse to engage, insisting on returning the discussions to the agreement set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the Geneva Communique. Pedersen can leverage partnerships with European supporters of the Geneva track talks to pressure all parties to the conflict to come to the negotiating table on the UN’s terms. Additionally, Pedersen should not grant the Syrian government and its allies the power to select the individuals with whom they are willing to negotiate and instead help ensure meaningful and representative voices at the negotiating table.

Reevaluate the Approach to De-escalation Zones. De Mistura often lauded the strategy of local de-escalation zones as a means through which to achieve long-term stability. However, as it became clear that the Syrian government never intended to uphold their obligations indefinitely, instead using the agreements as an opportunity to concentrate resources on retaking one area at a time, de Mistura did not advocate for a change in strategy. Moreover, Syrians lost confidence in the peace process as a result of the repeated failure of ceasefire agreements, ongoing bombardment during negotiation sessions, and the absence of human rights provisions in the confidence-building measures; civilians were skeptical that he could secure long-term peace if he was unable to guarantee even a few days of peace during negotiations. The new UN Special Envoy should reassess the approach taken to de-escalation zones agreements since three of the original four no longer exist. If it is determined that de-escalation zones are necessary, the Special Envoy should ensure the presence of a legitimate team of ceasefire monitors and clearly mapped zones.

Do Not Legitimize Forced Displacement. De Mistura repeatedly presented displacement of civilians as a viable solution to escalation of force and bombardment of civilian areas instead of taking a clear and unwavering stance against indiscriminate attacks that have been the primary driver of displacement. For example, in the case of the Four Towns Agreement in April 2017, de Mistura said that “initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities, and have great value.” The UN Commission Of Inquiry on Syria later found that the transfers constituted the war crime of forced displacement. As the Syrian government approached Idlib earlier this year, de Mistura said he would personally go to Idlib to ensure people can evacuate and later return to their homes, as if he had forgotten the systemic displacement and obstacles to return (including through legislation) that the Syrian government has orchestrated over the past several years. In September 2018 during a briefing to the UN Security Council on the situation in Idlib, US Ambassador Nikki Haley forced de Mistura to admit that he lacked specific proposals to safely resolve the situation in Idlib.  The new UN Special Envoy should refuse to engage in plans which involve displacement of civilians unless displacement is the last resort and the proposed evacuations are truly voluntary. Finally, the new Special Envoy should understand displacement has long-term implications for civilian populations and the broader issues of reconstruction and property restitution.

Prioritize Detainees and Missing People. During his tenure, de Mistura severely neglected the issue of detainees. Although he was willing to express concern over detainees in private meetings with civil society organizations, he refused to place pressure on the issue in public, explaining that progress on a constitutional committee took precedence. Furthermore, he allowed the Astana process to hijack the issue of detainees, resulting in a focus only on swapping fighters rather than the release of all political and arbitrarily arrested detainees. Consequently, in a July 2018 agreement to release 1,500 detainees from government detention, only a few hundred were actually released, most of whom were former fighters. SJAC calls on the new UN Special Envoy to publicly prioritize access for independent monitors to all detention facilities, whether government or rebel-held, and the release of all political prisoners.

Rely Upon a Human Rights Framework. Instead of condemning each instance of human rights violations based on fact-finding and documentation, de Mistura instead often equated fault in an effort to keep the Syrian government at the negotiation table. In March 2016, he stated in a video briefing to the UN Security Council regarding the situation in Ghouta that civilians were equally likely to be killed in government-controlled areas as in opposition-controlled areas. While opposition fighters were indiscriminately shelling government areas, the overwhelming majority of indiscriminate attacks were being conducted by the Syrian government air forces with more destructive weaponry. Similarly, in September 2018, de Mistura remarked that both sides had the potential to use chemical weapons, aligning with Russian assertions that opposition forces planned to use chemical weapons and subsequently blame the attack on the Assad government. The new UN Special Envoy should not engage in unsupported discourse which attempts to blur culpability; instead, he should seek to address systematic atrocities, relying upon well-documented reports by the UN COI, the OPCW, and the UN-OPCW JIM and encouraging the work of the IIIM in investigating violations. By doing so, the new envoy can better frame negotiations within a broad human rights framework that prioritizes civilian welfare.

Meaningfully Engage Civil Society and Women. During de Mistura’s tenure as UN Special Envoy, Syrian civil society organizations grew increasingly disillusioned with his assurances that their demands on human rights, justice, and confidence-building measures were being considered. The Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) was established in January 2016 to allow Syrian civil society groups to meaningfully participate in negotiations. However, De Mistura has failed to include information from civil society in his periodic briefings to the Security Council or addressed CSSR recommendations during the negotiations. The new Special Envoy should view the CSSR as well as the Women’s Advisory Board as an asset, not boxes to be checked off. Additionally, Pedersen should provide increased transparency in the process of selecting meeting participants while simultaneously protecting the identities of those participating who fear potential reprisals from the Syrian government. SJAC also calls on the new Special Envoy to end the practice of insisting that independent civil society organizations come to a single agreement with government organizations, instead allowing for dissent as an opportunity for further dialogue.

SJAC is hopeful that the new UN Special Envoy will take these mistakes into account and be responsive to the input of Syrian civil society.

For more information or to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at info@syriaaccountability.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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